Bollywood gets better at portraying crimes against women, but still has miles to go

New Delhi, Mar 22 (PTI) With the four men convicted of raping and murdering a young woman being hanged, one chapter in India’s history of aggravated sexual assault has ended but the framework in which the violence took place still exists, albeit a little weaker -- and Bollywood, say experts, is a critical pillar of that structure.

A bewildering number of mainstream Hindi films, right from the 60s to the 90s, figured graphic portrayals of rape with lascivious villains and helpless heroines.

And while things have changed with films such as “Pink', 'Thappad' and the post #MeToo-set 'Guilty' that deal with consent, domestic violence and society's treatment of rape survivors, sexual violence against women is still used as a tool to forward the story of the protagonist, mostly male, in films as recent as 'Kaabil' and 'Simmba'.

This concept is known as 'fridging' in cinema.

'Bollywood has normalised rape... Masculinity is an important narrative device in Bollywood cinema: strong masculinity and the threats to it,' sociologist Sanjay Srivastava told PTI.

'There is a long history to this, particularly relating to the division between 'good' and 'bad' women where rape was frequently presented as an instrument of control. Bollywood has presented rape as a relationship between men: if a woman is raped, it is the men of the family who are insulted because (they feel) they have been unable to 'protect' the women of the family,' he explained. I In film historian S M M Ausaja’s view, only a few Hindi films focus on the crime. In most cases, the plot becomes more about the 'hero' extracting revenge from the bad guys.

'It's always just an element of the narrative and to draw the revenge story forward… in 'Andha Kanoon', for instance, Rajinikanth's sister was raped and then the revenge story goes forward. There are so many movies like that,' Ausaja told PTI.

The December 16, 2012 gangrape, which sparked nationwide protests and led to a change in India’s rape laws, also inspired introspective documentaries and a Netflix series 'Delhi Crime' focusing on the police investigation into the crime, Of the six accused, one allegedly committed suicide in Tihar jail while another, a juvenile, a juvenile, is out after serving a three-year sentence.

'Delhi Crime' is probably the only fictionalised account that engaged with the topic in a sensitive yet matter-of-fact approach, a narrative style that 'Broadchurch' and 'Unbelievable' employed to critical acclaim.

While the former is a British series set in a fictional English town in Dorset, the latter is an American show based on a 2015 news article.  Canadian Indian filmmaker Richie Mehta, in an earlier interview to PTI, said he did not want to depict the crime in the series neither in visuals nor audio form.

'I was very clear from the beginning that I didn't want to showcase the rape scene because I wanted the series to be about the procedure, not the crime,' the “Delhi Crimes” director said.

'We weren't harnessing the pain, we were harnessing the strength of being able to catch the culprits,' actor Shefali Shah, who fronted the critically-acclaimed show, had said.

The incident was also the focus of British filmmaker Leslee Udwin's documentary 'India's Daughter', which was banned in India. The documentary featured an interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the convicts who was executed on Friday, confessing to the crime.

In Hindi films dealing with the topic of rape, there is a trend of replacing men with women as avengers.

'Mom', starring Sridevi, and 'Maatr' with Raveena Tandon, which released back-to-back in 2017, revolved around the leading women avenging the gangrape of their daughters.

Rani Mukerji's 2014 film 'Mardaani' features a female cop fighting a gang of women traffickers and in the 2019 follow up, a juvenile rapist, a character derived from real life incidents. Mukerji said the 'Mardaani' franchise was born 'out of the rage' the country felt after the gangrape.

'The first film was obviously, born out of the rage that we felt for Nirbhaya. I think as a country, we all were quite angered and shaken up. Because that was the first time through the media, we actually got to know the gory details of what happened to that woman,' the actor had said in an interview at the time of the film's release. A According to Tandon, Indian cinema has started portraying gangrape cases in a sensitive manner.

'We have become quite aware and sensitised towards the issue, which wasn't probably so in the '70s and '80s. The trend started changing in the '90s. It is something that now whether it is our filmmakers, actors, everyone portrays this sensitively. It is an issue which needs to be taken up even more seriously,' she told PTI.

Bollywood has often been called out for using harassment as a wooing method and the industry does not fare well in its dealing with crimes related to women. Innumerable films have used 'fridging' as a plot device -- the most notable being 'Ankush' in 1986 and 'Mohra' in 1994. And more recently, Hrithik Roshan's 'Kaabil', Sanjay Dutt-Aditi Rao Hydari's 'Bhoomi' and Ranveer Singh-starrer 'Simmba' in 2018. There are all some stand out films. Rekha-Vinod Mehra-starrer 'Ghar' in 1978, for instance, dealt sensitively with the subject with the dynamic between a woman who has been gangraped and her husband, shorn of the excessive melodrama that is a part of so many films. PTI RDS BK MIN MIN MIN